Orioles Preview - Page 55 - The Pirates

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- Page 55
The Pirates

Associated Press

 

The Pirates bet on themselves a year ago when they traded stars Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, believing the return they received plus the pieces already in place would help them make inroads in the hypercompetitive National League Central.

 

The results were promising. The Pirates put together the franchise’s fourth winning season in the last quarter-century, finishing 82-79 thanks in large part to the rapid development of a young starting rotation led by Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams that quickly found its footing. While many of their rivals retooled over the winter, the Pirates instead doubled down on their largely homegrown approach.

 

“I think that a seven-game improvement last year was a meaningful step forward, and we are absolutely positioned to take another meaningful step forward and get us back into that range where we have a very good shot at the playoffs,” owner Bob Nutting said.

 

To get there, the Pirates need the core of the rotation of Taillon, Williams, Chris Archer — acquired in an aggressive move at last summer’s trade deadline—and Joe Musgrove to build off a solid 2018 while hoping the offense can become more potent under new hitting coach Rick Eckstein. While the Pirates were a respectable 10th in batting average in 2018 (.254), they ranked in the bottom half of the majors in runs, home runs and slugging.

 

The return of third baseman Jung Ho Kang, who hit 36 homers in 2015 and 2016 before being arrested on a DUI charge in his native South Korea in late 2016, should help. First baseman Josh Bell spent much of his offseason working on regaining the stroke that produced 26 home runs as a rookie in 2017, a total that dipped to 12 a season ago. The Pirates brought in veteran Lonnie Chisenhall to help in right field until Gregory Polanco returns from shoulder surgery.

 

Fifth amendment: The only real question mark on the staff is at the back end of the rotation, where Nick Kingham and Jordan Lyles have been trying to lock down a roster spot. Kingham endured an up-and-down rookie season in 2018. Lyles has worked primarily out of the bullpen since 2015.

 

Firing Felipe: With specific roles for the middle relievers in flux, the back end of the bullpen is set. Felipe Vazquez was the team’s only All-Star in 2018, converting 37 of 42 save chances. Keone Kela, brought over from the Rangers at the deadline, will work in the eighth inning, with Kyle Crick getting a shot in the seventh. Their reliability will help shorten the game for the starting rotation.

 

Golden gun: Left fielder Corey Dickerson put together the finest season of his career in 2018 after being acquired from the Rays late in spring training. He hit .300 and was a revelation on defense, winning his first Gold Glove while patrolling spacious PNC Park. He earned a raise to $8.5 million in 2019, the final year of his contract. The 29-year-old Dickerson would like to stay in Pittsburgh long term, but the Pirates have a history of being hesitant to re-sign players in their 30s, so we’ll see.

 

Home-field advantage: The Pirates’ improved play in 2018 didn’t exactly galvanize the fan base. The Pirates posted their lowest average attendance at PNC Park since it opened in 2001 and their lowest overall since 1996. General manager Neal Huntington has spoken at length about the need to put a compelling product on the field, but that message hasn’t quite resonated.

 

Photo: Righty Trevor Williams went 14-10 with a 3.11 ERA in 31 starts for the Pirates last season.

 

GENE J. PUSKAR/AP